I consider myself a liberal feminist. But I gave birth to three boys and am married to a good man, and I’ve observed that our culture hurts men just as much as it hurts women.
I’m not sure when I had my first exposure to toxic masculinity (as compared to healthy masculinity) as a parent. Maybe it was when my first kid came home from kindergarten and said that another boy called him a gay-related slur because he still liked Blue’s Clues. If not then, it might have been when my late uncle called my boys “sissies” because they weren’t good at sports.
We have a serious problem in this culture of continuing to teach toxic masculinity to our sons. If you don’t teach toxic versions of masculinity, you pretty much guarantee that your kids will be outsiders. But I don’t think all is lost or that this is a pointless effort. Teaching a healthy model of masculinity is completely compatible with feminism as well, which means we could achieve a lot of advancements together which would benefit both men and women.
For starters, I think we need to make it clearer that we don’t think that men are the enemy — and in fact, we need to recognize that men are being hurt by many of the same factors that are also hurting women. I cringe when I see TV commercials that portray men as hapless boobs and I actually get mad when I see women making statements about how much they “hate all men.” That’s the exact opposite of the direction that we need to be going and does nothing to help promote equality between the sexes.
The expectations of men are confusing at best, incredibly toxic at worst. While the systems in place reward toxic masculinity, men aren’t given much direction about how they should behave instead.
Men who are naturally kinder and gentler by temperament are often treated with suspicion, even ridicule, by other men. The stereotypes of what a man should be are still deeply entrenched in male culture, but the number of men who support those values is steadily declining, especially among Millennials and Generation Z. (The economic changes alone — like the growing disparity between average wages and housing costs — convince many younger men that there’s no way they can be financially responsible for everything by themselves.)
Still, many men feel like they can’t do anything right. They were raised with a belief that they should be strong providers who take care of their families, only to arrive in a world in which that is an increasingly less economically possible goal, with women who no longer expect it. It’s no wonder that they feel a bit left adrift.
What this has resulted in are two things, both devastating: a marked decline in male mental health and the rise of the alt-right. Let me explain.
First, nearly 1 in 10 men experiences depression and anxiety, but fewer than half seek treatment. Instead, they try to “tough it out” and “buck up,” as the cultural messages tell them they should. We tell men to hide their emotions and to carry heavy burdens alone. This often has tragic results, as the male suicide rate is five times higher than that of women and only continues to rise every year. Those who don’t die by suicide often turn to alcohol abuse as a means to cope.
Culturally, we have extremely unhealthy expectations of men. We think they’re supposed to be tireless workhorses and ask even more of them when they’re not on the job. I can’t count the number of women I’ve known whose husbands had very physically demanding jobs and worked long hours, who call their husbands lazy if they just want to play video games or unwind for a bit after work.
Note that this is not to say that men should just come home from work and expect to have the rest of the night off, leaving their wives to do the famous “second shift” of the housework alone. Instead, what I propose is that both men and women need to have more empathy for what each other is going through and work together as a team.
My own husband has always worked very hard, sometimes even working two jobs when it was financially necessary. He grew up with what was called a “good work ethic” and he has never let us down. But he also got cancer by age 46, which could either be completely random or could be because of his years of chronic stress about our survival (and his habit of sleeping only 4–6 hours a night related to the stress.)
Is it any wonder that many boys in the younger generation are looking at the expectations of them as they reach adulthood and are already opting out? My own kids have decided that the version of manhood that they witnessed in their father is undesirable for themselves. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the sacrifices their father has made for them, but they don’t want to sign up for the same recipe for burnout themselves. It looks too difficult — and it is.
These unhealthy models of masculinity, as well as the lack of the ability to earn enough to support families, also made room for the rise of the alt-right, which promises to restore men to their traditional roles of power. I don’t believe the alt-right culture would have gained much traction if men didn’t already feel disempowered.
Both the alt-right and incel cultures teach men that they need to double down on their male supremacist traits and just continue to do so until the rest of the world submits, but there’s no evidence they can achieve this without violence. That violence is a real threat, which is why we need both men and women to fight it.
But it’s also clear that the alt-right is a minority. Their behavior is likely to get more extreme as they see that they can’t regain the power that they feel is their birthright, but they will (hopefully) eventually fade away.
That’s where feminism comes in. Feminism doesn’t teach that men are evil — or at least, it shouldn’t. Feminism is about equality between the sexes. That’s not to say that men and women are the same; of course, they’re not. But we can teach a healthier model of masculinity and support those who choose to opt out of traditional male culture.
We need to show credit and appreciation to men who do the right things — especially if it’s not popular with other men. It takes enormous courage to go against what the male culture expects you to do. We need to recognize and applaud the good men we know, because I guarantee it that they don’t hear that often enough.
I’m not denying that some feminist voices are anti-male, defending their viewpoints as justifiable because men are in charge of the power structures. But increasingly, this is less and less true. There’s a concentration of power among some men, but I don’t believe most men have real power anymore. We’re all getting screwed, and the sooner we band together, the sooner we can do something about it.
Maybe it’s time that the feminist movement takes a moment to recognize that most men have gotten a pretty raw deal, too.